This week’s “Inside the Executive Suite” from the Armada Executive Intelligence Brief newsletter highlighted two Wall Street Journal articles examining leadership strategy in light of how involved a teacher or coach should be in the details of teaching and learning. 

Leadership Strategy – How Much Teaching and Coaching Is Enough?

When it comes to your leadership strategy, what are the best techniques to develop your team? Should you be in the thick of things, understanding the details of what is going on with team members, and being an active resource for them? Or are they (and you) better off taking a hands-off approach and letting them handle the details relatively unencumbered?

In the Wall Street Journal this week, two articles addressed these questions from different angles.

An article by concert pianist and instructor, Byron Janis, addressed teacher-student relationships in music. Andrew Beaton addressed the topic of college football coaches forsaking their CEO-like management roles to create game plans, call plays, and behave like traditional coaches.

Learning to Play Music Pleasing to Another’s Ears


Janis offers advice gleaned from his own teaching experiences and from his time as a student of piano great Vladimir Horowitz during the 1940s. He shares four pieces of advice for teachers (that can extend to leaders and managers):

  1. Don’t over-teach to a specific standard

Teachers must balance their knowledge and inclinations to instruct what THEY know with the students’ needs to find and develop their own styles. A student only develops a distinctive talent and style if a teacher remains open and refrains from over-instructing based on what the teacher believes and knows.

Leadership Questions: How much latitude do you give less experienced team members to chart their own directions? Are there areas where you dictate a course of action that would benefit from junior team members exerting greater independence?

  1. Let individuals own their problems and solutions

When a student failed to grasp a particular musical passage, Horowitz would tell the student that something was amiss without indicating what it was. He invited them to ponder it, address what they discover, and return the next week to share the correction. This technique puts students in charge of making mistakes, identifying them, and determining the appropriate fixes.

Leadership Questions: How readily do you dissect errors and problems in detail? What room do you have to point out potential issues while allowing your team an opportunity to diagnose and correct them to develop their mistake-making and fixing skills?

  1. Provide ample room to disagree and interpret your input

Teachers can further free students to self-diagnose and correct problems through realizing their own subjective interpretations of performance strategies can be mistaken. Student can have creative perspectives that are on the mark even though instructors don’t understand them. As Horowitz told students, “‘If any of my interpretive ideas don’t feel right, please disregard them.”

Leadership Questions: Are you providing team members enough creative freedom in subjective areas to listen to your viewpoint, while applying their own ideas for implementing strategies? What techniques do you employ to keep your mind open to creative perspectives different from your own?

  1. Encourage a unique, personal path

It is easy, especially for individuals that strive to be perfect, to take in a more senior person’s vision, trying to mimic it as closely as possible. Instead, Janis recommends teachers show students that inspiration and expression are not primarily the byproducts of learning and practicing. They develop from actively living a varied, diverse life. He points out, in closing the article, that life “is perhaps the most important teacher of all. Hard work alone is not the solution.”

Leadership Questions: When new team members (especially junior ones) join your organization, how much onboarding involves instruction? In contrast, how much onboarding involves getting them started experiencing their new environment and actively doing and trying things right away? What opportunities are you creating to provide room for them to bring personal life learnings to your team to increase diversity and your team’s performance?

Getting Back into Coaching

While Byron Janis’ article emphasizes student-driven and owned learning as a teacher uses a gentler hand, Andrew Beaton’s perspective how active college coaches are in actually coaching raises an intriguing counterpoint.

Beaton points to former University of Texas head football coach, Mack Brown, as a forerunner in the “CEO style of coaching.” With coaches at major programs finding themselves in charge of well over a hundred players and staff (plus a nearly comparable number of prospective students they are monitoring), the head coaching role in college football has changed dramatically. Dedicated coordinators build game plans and make play calls during games. A variety of other “middle managers” assume implementation roles for the team.

Put it all together, and the head coach can feel disconnected and limited during a Saturday game.

That’s why some coaches are reversing the trend. A group that includes new University of Miami coach, Mark Richt, is re-working the head coaching role. Richt is prioritizing working with the team’s quarterbacks, designing game plans, and calling plays during the game. Richt and other coaches are devoting more time toward the Xs and Os of football as a way to tackle the classic dilemma of managers that developed as workers: promotions into senior positions remove them from the strong expertise and performance that originally earned their promotions.

Leadership Questions: If you made the transition from worker to manager in your career, how much time do you spend still doing? Are you doing enough doing to keep your skills and perspectives relevant? Or have you long ago walked away from daily activities that generate the value and benefit your team delivers to internal and external audiences? If you see yourself as too removed from daily team activities, what are the best ways to get closer to what your organization does?

It’s about a Balance that Keeps Moving

As with most leadership topics, the only clear direction is that what you do depends on your situation. And in this case, it may vary by specific team member. All of us as leaders need to determine the right balance to guide and grow our teams, and only you may know the right answer! – via “Inside the Executive Suite” 


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By and large, hotel meetings rooms suck for actually encouraging people to collaborate and work productively.


That’s why I find myself so frequently trying to manipulate hotel meeting rooms in ways that hotel proprietors never imagined. Most of the time we have to go well beyond what hotels consider standard ways groups will use their meeting rooms when we’re trying to create an effective space for a Brainzooming creative thinking workshop.

12 Reasons Hotel Meeting Rooms Suck for Collaboration

Based on the challenges we typically encounter, here’s my basic list of twelve reasons why hotel meeting rooms suck:

  1. The seating plans cram too many people into rooms to the point where there is no room for people to spread out and think
  2. The room configurations don’t allow for people to move around and collaborate with each other
  3. Valuable wall space (where people can place and react to ideas) is taken up with ugly, bland artwork
  4. They place lights in front of the areas where they set up screens to project images
  5. If there are lights where you need to put a screen, they are always on switches tied to half the lights in the front of the room
  6. They insist on putting the food and beverage in the meeting room where it takes up wall space and/or makes the room stink (instead of using the hallway for food service)
  7. Too many big hotel ballrooms have very low of ceilings so you can’t raise a screen high enough for people in the back to see it
  8. In their room setups, they have no concept of presenters that don’t remain in one spot at the podium
  9. There is never enough room for two different seating configurations that would allow people to move into a new setting for a different activity
  10. They place U-shaped table configurations nearly up to the screen so there’s no room to move about
  11. They insist on skirting things you may need to move around, such as AV carts, screens, and extraneous tables
  12. They typically have all kinds of big, impressive hall space that goes unused

Even at at the last minute, however, you can try things to improve these meeting spaces to boost collaboration.

Last Minute Changes to Boost Collaboration

All those frustrations surfaced the other day as I was pacing back and forth in front of an open hotel meeting room door where I was getting ready to facilitate a Brainzooming workshop. Since it was such a quick turnaround to fly to Chicago to facilitate the workshop (and it was tucked into a much longer meeting), I had no opportunity to influence the room setup.


Pacing in the hallway and trying to sneak peaks at the meeting room through an open door, I noted incredible wall space outside the room, and no other meetings were taking place. Thankfully, our client agreed with taking the workshop “outside” into the foyer. After the first poster-based exercise, everyone went into the hall for the rest of the Brainzooming workshop. SUDDENLY, we had all the room we needed to boost collaboration.

Yay for flexible clients, lots of wall space in the hall, and no other meetings!

If not for those, a successful creative thinking workshop would have been VERY DIFFICULT to keep from sucking.

Which is one more reason why hotel meeting rooms suck. – Mike Brown


Conquer Fears of Business Innovation!

FREE Download: “7 Strategies to Conquer Your Organization’s Innovation Fears”

3d-Cover-Innovation-FearsWhether spoken or unspoken, organizations can send strong messages saying, “If it isn’t broken, don’t screw around with it” in a variety of ways. Such messages make it clear that good things do not await those pushing for innovation involving any significant level of risk.

This free Brainzooming innovation eBook identifies seven typical business innovation fears. For each fear, we highlight strategy options to mitigate the fears and push forward with innovative strategies. We tackle:

  • Whether facts or emotional appeals are ideal to challenge fear of innovation-driven change
  • When it is smart to call attention to even bigger fears to motivate progress
  • Situations where your best strategy is taking business innovation underground

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I mentioned upcoming business collaboration opportunities for Brainzooming yesterday, including co-presentations, creating content, and developing new workshop and training offerings.

What to look for in a business collaboration?

Shame on me, but I’ve never put the criteria I look for from a business collaboration into the type of strategic decision making tool we develop for clients. The criteria are in my head. There is a time for everything, however.


Here are criteria to evaluate when considering business collaborations:

  • There is a clear way we can be of help to the collaborator.
  • The collaborator brings something different (and complementary) to what we do and offer.
  • The other party shares comparable core business values to us.
  • There is a mutual commitment to learning from the business collaboration.
  • The collaboration will yield mutual benefits.
  • Beyond learning more from the collaboration’s outcomes, it should provide an opportunity to learn about each other and our brand.
  • The collaboration helps us grow in a new way.
  • The collaboration helps us reach a new audience.
  • With an event-based collaboration, it provides opportunities to extend it in strategically smart ways.
  • The other party is as enthusiastic about the possibilities from the collaboration as we are.
  • The collaboration doesn’t have to be completely aligned with what we are trying to do, but giving attention to the collaboration won’t become a distraction to important goals.
  • There is a clear motivation for both of us to invest in the collaboration to make it as successful as possible.
  • There is a mutual contribution from both parties toward the strategy and ideas.
  • There won’t be a big exit cost if the collaboration doesn’t develop successfully.
  • The investment and work to make the collaboration successful is spread among both parties, even if the types of investment in it are markedly different.

There may be more, but thinking back on business collaborations from the past few years, those items characterize the decision making and expected impacts of our varied collaborations.  Mike Brown

10 Keys to Engaging Employees to Improve Strategic Results

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Results!!! Creating Strategic Impact Mini-Book

Leaders need high-impact ways to develop employees that can provide input into strategic planning and then turn it into results. This Brainzooming mini-book, “Results – Creating Strategic Impact” unveils ten proven lessons leaders can use to boost collaboration, meaningful strategic conversations, and results.

Download this free, action-focused mini-book to:

  • Learn smart ways to separate strategic opportunities from the daily noise of business
  • Increase focus for your team with productive strategy questions everyone can use
  • Actively engage stakeholders in strategy AND implementation success

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While traveling recently, I met with two online friends I’d never spoken with before. We’d chatted, messaged, and emailed, but had never spoken in person.

All I can say is I highly recommend turning online friends into IRL ones whenever possible.

A New Business Collaboration in Dallas

In Dallas, I met and spent two days with Mess Wright. We originally met on Twitter several years ago. I think Mess reached out online after reading some Brainzooming articles. I have been reading her multiple blog sites the last few years chronicling her career and life. I’ve said multiple times that I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone online that’s written about their personal successes and challenges in such a real, raw way.

Leading up to the Dallas trip, we were discussing her new role as a Communications Animator at The Grove, a social impact-focused co-working space located across the street from what was the Texas School Book Depository.


We spent time together seeing “Mess Wright’s Dallas” and attending the Social Media Strategies Summit. Our conversations led to us pursuing a new business collaboration we’re currently defining. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about collaborating with Mess!

A Chicago Creative Nudge

While in Chicago following the Dallas trip, Diane Bleck of The Doodle Institute met Anthony Vannicola (our Brainzooming intern) and me. Diane has graciously created a couple of infographics for Brainzooming articles. Nevertheless, we didn’t have any particular plans for our meetup.


To put it succinctly, Diane came in and kicked my creative and content marketing ass in the nicest possible way. She dropped a strategy and business model on me that both makes so much sense AND runs wildly against the balance I’ve tried to create between The Brainzooming Group brand and how visible I am in the mix. We did a Periscope video (my first). She also kindly shared one of her Innovation Think Pad kits and issued a creative nudge to create a visual vocabulary for Brainzooming.

Being the dutiful student, I spent the flight home starting to craft a set of doodle icons for Taking the NO Out of InNOvation.


As an introvert, meeting online friends IRL has definitely extended my social boundaries in incredibly positive ways. It’s made me more open to meeting new people. That includes sitting down and talking with complete strangers in airport restaurants on both trips. When I got back to a flooded-out Kansas City after the Chicago trip, I gave the guy across the aisle on the plane a ride home. Our introduction stemmed from a mutual friendship with Paula Holmquist. I met Paula at a copy shop years ago while preparing for our first big community collaboration event.

San Francisco and the SMS Summit

In late September 2016, I’ll be co-presenting and hanging out with Whip-Smart Wordsmith, Emma Alvarez Gibson, at the Social Media Strategies Summit and Marketing Conference in San Francisco. I met Emma in 2009 via an introduction from Jan Harness. Emma’s helped develop the initial Brainzooming brand messaging. We collaborate online frequently, and Emma co-facilitated an in-person workshop we did for CompTIA in San Diego several years ago. Additionally, she’s been editing our eBooks this year.


And btw, if you’re focused on marketing in general or social media and content marketing specifically, you should join us at this great event!

Want to Meet IRL in Your Town?

Introverts can grow and gain comfort with going from online to IRL friendships. Every time I’ve done this, it has led to learning more about online friends and about myself. In multiple cases, these meetings have fostered further collaboration.

So if I’m coming to your city (including Evansville, Indiana, San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis. Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and other locations before the year is done), are you interested in meeting IRL? Let me know! – Mike Brown


Conquer Fears of Business Innovation!

FREE Download: “7 Strategies to Conquer Your Organization’s Innovation Fears”

3d-Cover-Innovation-FearsWhether spoken or unspoken, organizations can send strong messages saying, “If it isn’t broken, don’t screw around with it” in a variety of ways. Such messages make it clear that good things do not await those pushing for innovation involving any significant level of risk.

This free Brainzooming innovation eBook identifies seven typical business innovation fears. For each fear, we highlight strategy options to mitigate the fears and push forward with innovative strategies. We tackle:

  • Whether facts or emotional appeals are ideal to challenge fear of innovation-driven change
  • When it is smart to call attention to even bigger fears to motivate progress
  • Situations where your best strategy is taking business innovation underground

Download your FREE copy of 7 Strategies to Conquer Your Organization’s Innovation Fears today!

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We wrote recently about lowering the stakes for sharing creative ideas. Right after that article, The Brainzooming Group facilitated a small innovation strategy workshop with a client.

We discussed the approach for the client’s upcoming thirty-person new process innovation strategy workshop. The question emerged of how much prior thinking to share with the newly involved participants. Our client thought we shouldn’t bias them by initially reviewing the innovation work that had already been done. The concern was that it would limit potentially contrary thinking about ways to improve the internal process they’re seeking to improve. These concerns followed an extended conversation about the value and applicability of having participants complete a pre-workshop survey to gauge their initial thinking and reactions.

We pointed out that bringing a large group together with little preparation and information-sharing would make the workshop way more risky than it should be.


For example, think about the salary cost (and associated risk) of having thirty people (many of them senior leaders) coming together for a day-long innovation strategy workshop without taking advantage of all the inputs we can.  We think lowering risks in these situations ALL THE TIME.

That’s why we never convene people for live, multi-hour innovation strategy workshops without pre-workshop input to understand:

  • What they are thinking
  • Where they see opportunities and challenges, and
  • How we can best organize the in-person time to maximize productivity and efficiency.

Upfront input lowers the risk of an unsuccessful meeting developing.

5 Ways to Lower Risk in an Innovation Strategy Workshop

Here are five ways we lower risks with an in-person workshop:

  1. Carefully selecting participants to get a sufficiently diverse group with as few people as possible.
  2. Reaching out to as big a group as makes sense with pre-workshop surveys or online collaboration sessions so we can introduce their voices and perspectives into the in-person meeting, even if they aren’t physically present.
  3. Sharing as much one-to-many information as we can before the in-person workshop (since it’s often low efficiency time when one person is talking and everyone else is sitting and listening).
  4. Customizing and sequencing exercises based on what participants are thinking and need to accomplish (instead of some standard arrangement that’s always the same).
  5. Creating open space within the meeting where we encourage participants to challenge thinking already advanced by the core team.

With that approach, we can move faster and make an in-person innovation strategy workshop tremendously productive.

If you’d like to learn more about doing the same for your innovation team, contact us! We’d love to fill you in on the approach and how it could look for your organization. – Mike Brown

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Ready to boost your innovation strategy?

New-10Barriers-Cover-BurstDo you need a quick evaluation to understand your organization’s innovation challenges so you can create a strategy to boost new ideas and successful implementation?

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This free Brainzooming eBook highlights ten common organizational innovation barriers. A one-page evaluation sets the stage to quickly self-diagnose where to focus your organization’s efforts in customizing a successful innovation initiative.

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What if you are a person that freezes up when you think you need to come up with or implement a creative idea?

What if even having someone TELL YOU that there are no wrong ideas doesn’t free you up to start sharing ideas in a group?

What if your fear of being wrong is so great that you can’t even start implementing creative ideas that are just for you for fear you’ll goof something up?

Is there hope?

Sure, there is hope.

Typically, the creative thinking exercises we teach and use are a huge source of hope to get past fears about self-judged “bad” ideas. Those creative thinking exercises don’t work for some people, however.

I had someone dealing with these concerns come up and talk with me the other day during a wonderful weekend I spent at the Friends of Georgia State Parks & Historic Sites annual conference. She could be creative in other areas on her own time, by herself. Or she could express creativity when she patterned what she did creatively on someone else’s approach. While she wanted to contribute to the group creative thinking exercises we used, however, she “froze up.”

She was another “Becky,” a person we worked with that was miserable in group creative situations.

I told my new friend that she was also me. I can still be the person that doesn’t want to mess up a creative idea right from the start or expend creative energy on things I don’t think will lead to success or progress.

To help, I bought her a cheap sketchbook (not a nicely bound book that says “don’t mess up a page” to someone like my friend), a few Sharpies, and a couple of the Pilot pens I use to scribble notes. Inside the sketch book, I wrote this message for her.


Finally, we talked about other ways to lower the stakes of imagining and doing something with new creative ideas:

  1. Write down ideas you are willing to throw away if they don’t turn into anything.
  2. Don’t plan to show anyone your ideas until you are happy with them.
  3. Get over it: if someone doesn’t get your creative idea right away, what’s the worst thing that can happen?
  4. Create something you can erase, adjust, or modify.
  5. If you are creating in a group, make it very easy for others to participate so their expectations for the creative output might not be so big.
  6. Share ideas that aren’t comfortable for you. Don’t judge them on whether you like them. Evaluate them later by whether they inspired someone else to come up with new ideas.
  7. Apply some creative ideas you like in one area to another area where you have less comfort with new ideas.
  8. Decide for yourself that your idea doesn’t have to be perfect and take a risk.

Are you a Becky? If you are, figure out which of these ideas (or others) will work to lower creative stakes for you.

Because the only creative mistake you are REALLY making is missing out on sharing your creativity with the world. – Mike Brown

Facing Innovation Barriers? We Can Help!


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I’m at the Social Media Strategies Summit in Dallas today, delivering a two-hour workshop on developing a branded content marketing strategy. The key is finding the right balance between employing outside-in topics and outside-in timing while still making sure your brand personality and messages come through clearly.

We recently conducted a dedicated content marketing strategy workshop for a client on this very topic. We worked with nearly thirty of its business and communication leaders to explore topics four different audience personas would find valuable and that the organization, a healthcare non-profit, could credibly address.

The client is a non-profit focused on healthcare. It entered the workshop with five profiles of target audience members that The Brainzooming Group helped them develop. These profiles, called personas, are three-to-five paragraph descriptions it developed describing specific individuals it serves, seeks to hire, or collaborates with in serving clients.  Small groups prepared the personas in advance by brainstorming answers to ten questions on each audience member.

The personas provided the basis for other workshop activities imagining topics audience members would be interested in and willing to read, watch, or listen to if the non-profit were to address them.

Here’s an overview of each of the strategic thinking exercises:

5 Content Marketing Strategy Exercises to Generate Audience-Oriented Topics


What questions do audience members ask during the buying journey?

The initial exercise explored three phases of an audience member’s journey. The first phase (Awareness) encompassed their initial exploration as they became aware of an opportunity or issue an outside party might address. The second phase (Consideration) involved the audience member describing the relevant opportunity or issue and looking at organizations to help satisfy needs. The final phase (Decision) involved the audience member selecting, engaging, and evaluating the relationship with the outside party they chose.

Within each phase, the small groups identified questions audience members might ask. The comprehensive list of questions each group identified became the basis for the second content marketing exercise.

What topics address important audience questions?

The second exercise used questions from the first one to generate content topic ideas. For each audience question, participants suggested one or more topics or working titles. The topics they generated were not intended to communicate an overtly promotional brand message. Instead, the content would help audience members be smarter in their exploration, evaluation, decision-making, engagement, and post-purchase experiences. As the brand addresses topics of interest to audience members, it has the opportunity to subtly convey its helpfulness, expertise, and audience-focus through sharing beneficial content throughout has the audience journey.

Why do audience members select the brand?

Another exercise focused participants on the relationship stage where audience members either choose or do not choose the brand. Workshop participants identified five primary reasons audience members select the brand. They then identified five reasons audience members do not pick the brand. For each positive reason, they generated multiple topic ideas (of interest to audience members) that would back up the brand’s attractive characteristics. For reasons the brand was not selected, they brainstormed possible topics to help counter or refute misperceptions about the brand.

What do audience members say about the brand relationship?

One exercise focused on interactions audience members have with the brand further into the relationship using a 4-box grid. One axis listed “questions” and “statements.” The other listed “negative” or “positive” interactions.  Each of the four cells named a relevant situation and several questions to trigger potential topics. For instance, positive questions present “Education opportunities,” and negative questions signal “pain points.” Positive statements suggest highlighting ” brand value.” Negative comments indicate “objections to anticipate.” Questions associated with each of these four areas suggested jumping off points for additional topic ideas.

What do we think, know, and do that is relevant for audience members?

Audience members’ interests primarily extend beyond the brand’s traditional focus areas. That is why brands focusing only on content about themselves miss so many rich areas in which to share content. To counter this, one exercise explored areas in which audience members exhibit interests, seek information, and focus priorities. For each of the areas identified, participants generated audience-oriented topics. They made the brand connection to the audience based on what the brand thinks about audience interest areas, knows about the information they seek, and does relative to their priorities.

Coming Away with Plenty of Audience-Oriented Topic Ideas

During the Brainzooming content marketing strategy workshop, participants generated hundreds of potential content topics. Before adjourning, each person walked the room to review the topics and select those they thought had particular potential to interest audience members.

The next step is documenting all the topics on a content calendar. This enables the brand to address topics in an organized fashion across the year when, as they can best determine, audience members are most interested in the information.

If you want to learn more about specific details of this approach, contact us. Let’s collaborate to develop richer content that matters to your audiences. – Mike Brown

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